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How Does SPD Affect Learning?

Posted on www.SPDnetwork.org with other similar articles (May 2000)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is not classified as a learning disability, but it can certainly hamper a child’s ability to learn. To illustrate, here are stories about two preschoolers whom I taught in my music and movement room at St. Columba’s Nursery School in Washington, DC.

Robin, 4, is over-responsive to touch sensations (she avoids them). Larry, 3-1/2, is under-responsive to movement (he craves it). Let’s look at these intelligent, healthy kids with an eye on how sensory issues are not only getting in their way now but may also interfere with learning and behavior in the future.

ROBIN

Robin has Sensory Over-Responsivity. She avoids being close to other children and shies away from adults, too. The possibility of being accidentally touched by them makes her extremely anxious. She also avoids messy play. Touching fingerpaints, mudpies, sand, playdough, glue, and bubbles makes her very uncomfortable–even threatened. Therefore, she scoots away from her preschool classmates when it’s time to sit on the rug for a story. She refuses to participate in art projects. She resists sitting at the science table. “I hate science,” she says, turning her back. “It’s yucky.” She avoids cooking and “gooking” activities in the classroom. At snack time, she becomes upset when a drop of juice spills on her skin or even on the table.

Robin likes to dance, but not if the game is Ring Around the Rosy, because she doesn’t want to hold hands in the circle. And not if the song is about whirling leaves, and the musical game is to hold a real leaf and twirl around the room with it. She likes to sing, knows all the words, has a good sense of rhythm, and enjoys chanting rhymes. But when offered rhythm instruments to accompany the song, she shoves them away. She crosses her arms and tightens her lips.

Now, rhythm instruments aren’t messy, are they? They’re not slimy or sticky or smelly. But Robin refrains from touching them, anyway. Unlike her curious classmates who are eager to explore objects in their environment, she just says “no” to picking things up and examining them. She disdains putting on dress-ups, playing with hand puppets, and drawing with crayons. Churning ice cream? Making snowballs? Picking up worms on the sidewalk? Washing doll babies? Pouring sand from one container to another? Finger painting in shaving cream? No way.

Robin is missing many concrete, hands-on experiences that are necessary for abstract learning later on. She is also missing making connections to other children. Tactile overresponsivity gets in Robin’s way, physically, socially, emotionally, and yes, cognitively, too. As she gets older, learning may become increasingly tough. If she hasn’t handled many different objects and toyed with many different textures, she may not understand concepts such as hard and soft, wet and dry, heavy and light, prickly and smooth, sticky and slippery, fragile and enduring. She may be mystified by challenges to estimate an object’s size and shape, weight, and density. She may struggle to make sense of math, science, and art. Expressing herself in words may be limited, because of her limited experiences and participation in the world around her.

For the moment, her teacher is aware of Robin’s tactile dysfunction and has found some ways to entice her into the play. For example, she invites Robin to come to the art table when only one or two children are working there, so Robin doesn’t feel crowded and anxious. She offers Robin individual finger mittens (snipped from vinyl gloves) to slip on her fingertips. She keeps a bucket of water nearby for Robin to rinse her hands immediately after she touches something objectionable. She lets Robin sit at the head of the snack table, so other children have less chance of grazing against her.

The teacher’s accommodations do help Robin for now. But what do you guess may happen when Robin goes to kindergarten and the great beyond? Will she be able to work in groups with other children, as expected? Will she be competent manipulating scissors, rulers, compasses and pencils? Will she function smoothly in the big, busy classroom?

LARRY

Larry is an impetuous daredevil. He does not appear to have much sense of how to protect himself. You might see him scrabbling up to the top rung of the jungle gym (where other kids know instinctively not to go) and leaping to the mulch below. Bam! He lands in a heap and scrambles to his feet, covered with mulch, grinning.

More, more, more.

Larry always needs more movement experiences and needs them to be more intense than other children’s. For instance, he craves rotary movement on the tire swing. Whereas twirling for a few minutes satisfies most children, Larry spins hard and fast for 20 or 30 minutes. Should his teacher invite him to play Duck-Duck-Goose or to go on a treasure hunt, he says, “No, thank you. I just want to spin.” Spinning is his favorite activity. The teacher respects his needs and lets him spin, although she worries that he is missing most of the activities that his classmates enjoy.

Off the tire swing, Larry runs everywhere, but stopping is hard. He trips and falls often. His teacher says, “Larry is like the Titanic. Throttles wide open, full steam ahead!” He frequently bumps and crashes into his schoolmates, pawing them to the ground for a bit of wrestling.

One day, The Gingerbread Man is the program du jour in my music and movement room. First, I tell the story on the felt board. During the story, the children shake jingle bells and sing, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man!”

Larry is impatient: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Finish the story!” He doesn’t want to sit; he wants to run, run, as fast as he can.

His classroom teacher gently restrains him, applying the OT technique of deep pressure. She sits behind him, straddles her legs around him, squeezes his knees to his chest, and rocks him. The pressure and rhythmic motion are soothing. He closes his eyes and begins to tune in. Now he sings the Gingerbread Man’s theme song along with the other kids.

Meanwhile, I conclude the felt board story and show the children how the room is set up for the playlet. On the bare floor, all around the rug, a large circle of masking tape indicates the road. At one point on the road is a red paper stop sign. The idea is for the Gingerbread Man to run once around the rug and then halt on the stop sign. The other characters in the story will chase him, but never actually catch him.

As I point out the other props, the children watch attentively. They are so invested in the activity that they ignore Larry, who has wriggled away from his teacher’s embrace. While his classmates are learning how to enact the story, Larry places his forehead on the rug and pivots his body around his head.

Now each child gets to choose a part to enact: the Old Woman, the Cow, the Pig, the Fox, etc. Larry jumps up and clamors to be the Gingerbread Man. “I know this story,” he says eagerly. “My Mommy reads it to me all the time.”

Larry is a good listener, that I know. Even when he’s twirling or rocking, he can still pay attention to what is said or sung. But is he a good visual observer? Can he use his eyes to focus and attend? We’ll see.

The playlet begins. Larry knows the story and song… but not the significance of the red stop sign on the floor. He wants to participate… but can’t plan and carry out how he is supposed to act and what he is supposed to do. I repeat the information, and he says he understands… but he still has trouble stopping. I hold his hand and run beside him… but he still has trouble stopping. “Larry is doing it all wrong!” the Horse complains. “He’s messing us up!”

Larry is confused and unhappy. He falls in a heap on the rug. His classroom teacher sits nearby and rubs his back while the other children enact the story several times, until they’re satisfied.

Will Larry succeed in elementary school?